Chicago is like that: In its farther reaches, bland wide streets lined with strip malls or highways with twisting on- and off-ramps ferry a driver through the city.
All the while, a cute neighborhood with pretty homes and lush gardens can lie just a block or two beyond that kind of uninspiring thoroughfare. Such is the case with the Pullman Historic District, to be found a few blocks west of a mundane I-94 interchange on 111th Street.
I studied American History, and so I did know about the model factory town the Pullman Company built for its workers in the 1880s on the far South Side of Chicago.
Nevertheless, I’ve been living in Chicago for more than 30 years, and it took me until this July to finally make it down there and take a tour! That was partly due to the Pullman Historic Foundation‘s formerly odd opening hours. Even these days, despite becoming the Pullman National Monument in 2015, guided tours are only available on the first Sunday of the month from May to October, and that at 1:30 p.m. Invariably, I had something else going on, or it was too damn hot for a walking tour.
Even this past first Sunday of July, it was a tad hot, but thankfully only a tad, and so two of my kids and I finally drove down to 111th Street and checked out a cute historic neighborhood in our own city.
None of the factory complex area is currently open to visitors. Anyway, I was more interested in the houses Pullman built for his employees and workers.
Amazingly, no two row houses are exactly alike.
There is always some variation in design. The architect Solon S. Beman intended to promote individuality and Pullman’s idea of a more humane setting. These homes were pretty sophisticated for the 1880s: They all featured indoor plumbing, and most importantly, a bathroom. No outhouse out back! Pullman featured state-of-the-art canalization. Providing a healthy environment for his workers was important to Pullman.
This engraving from 1882 shows the administration building in the upper left. Its scaffolded clock tower is in my picture above. The Hotel Florence is in the foreground, see my pics below. The town faced the Illinois Central Railroad (still does), which was then the main mode of transportation.
The train station is still there. These days the Metra Commuter Rail stops here, while freight trains and long-distance Amtrak trains barrel through.
The Hotel Florence, named after Pullman’s favorite daughter, is also undergoing renovation and was unfortunately closed when we visited. Mortimer Pullman had a suite at the hotel, where he would stay when he visited the company, which was actually quite often. He would take his private rail car from the Prairie District at 12th Street, a straight shot on the Illinois Central line, to 111th Street.
The Hotel Florence is still quite an ornate building, despite its red-brick industriousness.
But mainly, I loved seeing where the workers lived.
This erstwhile rounded plaza with the arched arcade building in the middle used to be the market place, where residents did their shopping and hung out. These days, residents and the Pullman Foundation are trying to figure out what to do with the space as society’s ways of shopping, entertainment and getting together have changed.
Nevertheless, Pullman is still a comfortable neighborhood, where residents have a chat or snooze in the park on Sundays, and someone drives the coolest car ever.
Incidentally, this coming Sunday is another first Sunday of the month when you could take a tour of the Pullman Historic District, should you find yourself in Chicago!